When Capitalism Kills

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disasters, natural and unnatural, Obama Administration, Wingnuts Being Wingnuts

Republicans blame President Obama for letting Ebola cross the border, because Presidents are supposed to be able to stop such things with their magical brain waves, apparently.  Others are calling for the head of the CDC to resign, or perhaps to commit ritual suicide. But the picture that is emerging just about everywhere but on Fox News is that Ebola spread to two nurses (so far) largely because of really bad hospital management.

Which takes us to our next installment of “When Capitalism Kills.” I’m not sure when the last one was, but I’m sure I’ve written on this general theme before.

The husband of an ER nurse at a Florida hospital formerly owned by Gov. Rick “ball fan envy” Scott  writes at TPM that his wife’s place of employment is run like most large companies/corporations in America. That is, the people at the top have no background or interest in how the products or services their companies provide actually happen. They are strictly money guys who have backgrounds in finance or something related but couldn’t manage production of their own products if you put a gun to their heads and threatened to shoot them if they don’t get that toothpaste into the tube.

Further, they have no respect for the expertise of the people who really are somehow making the products or services happen and would no more think to consult them about how to run the company better than they’d try to fly off the roof of corporate headquarters. Instead, if they decide something is amiss they hire outside consultants who will spend a few days having lunches with upper management and who will provide recommendations that, if implemented,  would make everything worse. Just about anyone who has ever worked in the trenches of production or engineering departments of large companies/corporations will tell you this.

If you are such a person, read this and tell me how familiar it sounds —

… it is obvious to those who work there that the combination of lax training and toxic labor relations ‘leaders’ like him have brought to the company are emblematic of a big problem for US hospitals if a major outbreak of ebola or other infectious disease occurs. My wife’s ER has an ‘ebola cart’ with some lightweight protective gear and written instructions for putting on a PPE, but the instructions are a loose bundle of papers and the pictures don’t match the gear in the cart and has inaccuracies that put them at serious risk. It’s an object of gallows humor for the staff. That’s the totality of their training or preparedness so far. As we all now know, PPEs are not easy to put on and take off correctly. Even though nurses all have experience with standard droplet control (they see TB and HIV all the time), ebola is a special case. They have gone months and months without a nurse education director because no one wants to deal with their management and take the position. Her coworkers are clear that they will refuse to treat an ebola patient because they have woefully inadequate training in the correct procedures and lack proper gear.

And yet the head of infectious disease at this hospital went on the local news to proclaim the hospital was ready to receive ebola patients safely. They obviously didn’t bother to speak to a single nurse on the front lines. I’m not particularly panic-y about ebola, even though obviously the family members of ER personnel have a lot at stake in ebola preparedness. But I think that this situation will be the weak link in any major national response. So many of our hospitals are run by lunatics like Rick Scott who seek only the highest profit margin. They do not invest in training, they build charting mechanisms that are good for billing but not treating patients, they constantly fight with their unionized employees, they lie to the public, etc, etc. We like to imagine that competent, highly-skilled medical institutions like Emory will save us, but we have way more Dallas Presbyterians in this country than we have Emorys. You can see exactly this managerial incompetence—and toxic labor relations—woven through the statement released by the nurses at Dallas Presbyterian today. Also see the head of National Nurses United on All In With Chris Hayes for a similar perspective.

To put it bluntly: we’ve entrusted our national medical system to the managerial competence and goodwill of the Rick Scotts of the world, and that is much scarier than a podium fan.

One of the nurses at the Texas hospital said that in the second week of the Ebola crisis at her hospital she was provided insufficient protective gear that left her neck exposed. Meanwhile the hospital was releasing statements to the press saying they were taking every precaution and going beyond CDC recommendations.

In other words, standard corporate bullshit.

Meanwhile, many politicians of both parties are babbling about hiring an “Ebola czar,” who no doubt would end up being the public sector equivalent of private sector consultants — some Very Important Person who will perform public “we’re doing something about this” theater.  And nothing any VIP does will ever trickle down  to the level of the people directly confronting Ebola in hospitals, working with inadequate direction and protection because management doesn’t know the difference between a virus and vichyssoise.

Because here in America, that’s how we roll.

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When Women Don’t Count

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criminal justice, Republican Party, Women's Issues

A couple of unrelated stories saying the same thing — first, following up yesterday’s post on how gun rights “trump” everything else these days, here’s a story from South Carolina about prosecutors who say “stand your ground” laws don’t apply to domestic violence situations.

In November 2012, Whitlee Jones fatally stabbed her partner, Eric Lee. She has testified that she did not mean to kill Lee when she issued the fatal wound, but that she only meant to fend him off while he blocked her from exiting the house with her belongings, attempting to leave him for good. The incident occurred just hours after Lee had punched Jones repeatedly and dragged her down the street by her hair.

People had witnessed Lee brutalizing Jones and called the police. Naturally, when the police showed up they talked only to Lee, who told them there was no problem. So the cops left. Brilliant. Shortly after the police left Jones tried to get out of the house, and she says he attacked her again, so she stabbed him. And he died, and now she is facing homicide charges.

And why doesn’t “stand your ground” apply to this situation?

But prosecutors say the 2006 SYG law does not apply to housemates in episodes of domestic violence, as that was not the legislation’s original purpose.

“[The Legislature’s] intent … was to provide law-abiding citizens greater protections from external threats in the form of intruders and attackers,” Assistant Solicitor Culver Kidd, the case’s lead prosecutor, told The Post and Courier. “We believe that applying the statute so that its reach into our homes and personal relationships is inconsistent with [its] wording and intent.”

So, in other words, stand your ground only applies if one is defending oneself from a stranger? On what planet does that make sense?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, from 1980 to 2008, among all homicide victims—

  • Females were more likely than males to be the victim of intimate killings (63.7%) and sex-related homicides (81.7%) .
  • Males were more likely to be involved in drug- (90.5%) and gang-related homicides (94.6%).
  • Female murder victims (41.5%) were almost 6 times more likely than male murder victims (7.1%) to have been killed by an intimate.
  • More than half (56.4%) of male murder victims were killed by an acquaintance; another quarter (25.5%) were murdered by a stranger.

Self-defense laws that apply only to defending oneself from strangers are, therefore, self-evidently screwy even for men, but more so for women.  This same document says men represent 77 percent of homicide victims and 90 percent of perpetrators, but given that male homicides tend to be drug and gang related, it’s not clear to me what the stats are regarding men not involved in gangs and drugs, and that’s something I’d be curious to know.

Even so, it seems to me a lot of white Americans are obsessed with unreasonable fear of the “other,” whether of brown Guatemalan toddlers sneaking across the Rio Grande or drug-crazed black people breaking into their homes and killing them. I actually couldn’t find authoritative data on how common it is for armed criminals of any color to break into homes while the occupants were inside. Burglaries are common, of course, but burglars prefer it if the homeowners are not home.

A lot of men also have a hard time accepting the fact that most rapes are not, in fact, perpetrated by strangers lurking in dark alleys but by men the victim knows.  Conservative men in particular will denounce rape in the abstract but defend it in the particular, especially when the accused seems like such a regular guy. And they nearly always seem like such regular guys.

But the point is that, if the prosecutors are right, then South Carolina’s “stand your ground” law was written to address threats that probably don’t actually happen that often to real law-abiding citizens, but it doesn’t apply to the ways people really are threatened, especially women.  Again, brilliant.

The other story showing that women are still a variation from the default norm in America comes from the sharp-eyed Josh Marshall.

For years there was a constant refrain in American politics which would speak of two electorates, even two elections: election results among white people and then the results when you counted the votes of black people. There were more denigrating and racist versions of this talk. But the most revealing were the versions that weren’t consciously racist at all. They were at their peak of popularity in the 80s and 90s and went something like this: “Democrats haven’t won the white vote in decades. Without blacks, they’d barely be holding on as a national party.”

There were various permutations of this refrain. But, as I’ve discussed before, all carried with them the tacit assumption that black votes, while legal, were somehow a second-rate product in the grand economy of voting.

We’ve come a long way, baby, or not —

I raise this history because we seem to be seeing a similar trend in attacks upon or diminishment of single women. Last week long-shot New Jersey Senate candidate Jeff Bell noted that he’d actually be ahead if not for single women. He then went on to blame his opponent’s double digit margin on single women and single mothers who vote Democratic because they are “wed” to the social safety net and “need benefits to survive.”

Josh goes on to quote other voices of the Right, including Rushbo, saying variations of the same thing. And of course the reason there is a gender gap is that there are women voters who, sensibly, vote according to their self-interests, whether for equal pay or reproduction rights or protection from domestic violence, and Democrats overwhelmingly support such things while Republicans overwhelmingly oppose them. And why might single mothers be more concerned about the social safety net, pray tell?

Every now and then I still run into men who actually cannot understand why gender and racial diversity is a good thing in a governing body. Why can’t a legislature or board of directors made up almost entirely by white men make perfectly sound and reasonable policies that apply to everybody?

Because so often they don’t, that’s why.

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Wrong About Rights

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Obama Administration

The concept of human rights is one of the most significant achievements of civilization. I believe I speak for liberals generally when I say that. But I also think the concept of “rights” generally has been considerably degraded.

Awhile back the the late Ronald Dworkin, who was a professor of philosophy at New York University, compared the exercise of individual rights to playing a trump card. “Individual rights are political trumps held by the individuals,” he said. “Individuals have rights when, for some reason, a collective goal is not a sufficient justification for denying them what they wish, as individuals, to have or to do, or not a sufficient justification for imposing some loss or injury upon them.”

The problem is that we seem to have assigned trump status to some rights even when a greater good would be served by denying them. And here’s an example.

Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist and gaming critic, pulled out of a speech she was going to give at the University of Utah. She had received threats of a “Montreal Massacre style attack” if her speech wasn’t canceled. The anonymous email continued, “feminists have ruined my life and I will have my revenge, for my sake and the sake of all the others they’ve wronged.”

The University and law enforcement decided the threat wasn’t serious enough to cancel the speech. Sarkeesian insisted on heavy security, including metal detectors at the doors.

But here’s the kicker: The University decided that people could carry a firearm into the auditorium as long as they had a permit for it. In other words, the right to carry trumped the safety of the speaker and the audience. Sarkeesian not unreasonably refused to give the speech.

Yesterday I ran into an argument over a right to health care. Naturally some guy trotted out his libertarian trump card, saying he had a right to not be obligated to pay for somebody else’s health care.

Where health care is concerned I am less interested in theories about rights than the practical matter that (a) getting more people insured really is controlling cost (b) providing access to health care is part of a reasonable national strategy for controlling infectious disease. In other words, somehow providing health care to most citizens is a positive for everybody. If we make it an argument about rights, however, we just have people slapping down their cards and arguing about which one trumps the other.

And a “right” to liberty doesn’t mean much if you are incapacitated with untreated medical problems.

Lately we’ve had some disagreements over the “right” of individuals to keep loaded assault weapons strapped to themselves everywhere they go. You’ll remember there was an episode in which restaurant staff and patrons hid in the cooler because they couldn’t tell if the men with guns were criminals or just gun nuts. In Georgia awhile back, a man waving a firearm around in a public park caused Little League parents to hide their children in a dugout while the parents stood guard and called the police. But the police didn’t arrest the guy, because he had a “right” to wave his gun around in a public park. Guns trump children.

Around the country the Fetus People are still pushing “personhood amendments” which amounts to assigning trump cards to fertilized eggs. In Alabama, a pregnant minor who can’t get permission for an abortion from her parents must go to court, where the fetus (but not the minor) may be represented by a court-appointed lawyer. A fetus trumps the minor child.

Our assignments of “trump” values increasingly is just about which interest groups are most persistently belligerent and whose lobbyists get the ears of politicians; any sense of “greater good” is left out of the conversation.

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Teabaggery and Ebola

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Republican Party

The first man to die of Ebola in the U.S., Thomas Duncan, was an African man with no health insurance. He was initially discharged by the hospital with an antibiotic prescription even though he had a fever of 103 degrees. The hospital knew that Duncan had just arrived from Africa, which should have been an alarm. Even so, someone with that much fever is very sick, and there was no diagnosis. He was just given antibiotics and sent home.  And one does wonder if a white man, or a person of any color with insurance, would have been at least kept for observation.

Even after Duncan had been diagnosed with Ebola Texas couldn’t get its act together.

It’s clear now that not just the hospital but state and local authorities responded inadequately to Duncan’s illness. His family and friends were quarantined, but left to fend for themselves; county public health officials didn’t even provide clean bedding. “The individuals, it’s up to them … to care for the household,” Erikka Neroes of Dallas County health and human services told the Guardian a week after Duncan had been admitted to the hospital. “Dallas County has not been involved in a disinfection process.”

When the disinfection process began, belatedly, there’s evidence that was botched as well. The Guardian found a team of contractors with no protective clothing simply power-washing the front porch, for instance, when it should have been scrubbed with bleach. A baby stroller sat nearby.

While the increasingly weird Grandpa John called for an Ebola czar, other people pointed to cuts in public health spending at the state and federal level that left us vulnerable. See Sarah Kliff, “The Stunning Cuts to America’s Budget to Fight Disease Outbreaks.” And then let’s go back to this:

The GOP approach to public health was crystallized at the 2012 debate where Rep. Ron Paul – another Texas politician — said it wasn’t the government’s responsibility to take care of a hypothetical young man who showed up in the emergency room very sick after he decided not to buy insurance. “That’s what freedom is all about, taking your own risks,” Paul said, deriding “this whole idea that you have to prepare to take care of everybody …”

“Are you saying that society should just let him die?” moderator Wolf Blitzer asked. And the crowd roared “Yeah!” (For his part Paul answered no, but said hospitals should treat such cases as charity and not be compelled to do so.) Lest you think either Paul or that Florida audience represented a minority sentiment in the GOP, recall that none of his rivals, not even Mitt Romneycare, challenged Paul’s approach at the debate.

But now we know what happens when hospitals fail to adequately care for uninsured people who turn up in the ER: They can die, which is awful, but they may also spread disease and death to many other people. It’s pragmatism, not socialism, that commits governments to a public health agenda.

Republicans don’t do pragmatic. Republicans do tax cuts and then blame Democrats when the tax cuts have consequences.

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Thinking About Separation of Church and State

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Religion

I’m writing this in response to something posted in a Facebook group, which I started to write in Facebook, but it was turning into something major, so now it’s a blog post.

The original comment:

“I really just mean a state anti-religious or taking the separation between church and state to nitpicky extremes, obsessed with avoiding all prayers to God in general in the public square or the slightest mention of God in the public square. I have no problem with a President, for example, saying “God bless the United States of America”, or the pledge saying, “Under God”, or, “In God we trust” on our coins, or prayers at public meetings, as long as neutral and inclusive, and not mandatory for anyone.”

My response, addressed to the person who posted the comment:

Let’s take these apart. “The left” these days really is not concerning itself with “In God We Trust” on coins; possibly a few atheists are, but I haven’t heard anything about this lately.

When you are talking about the “public square” are you talking about official functions of some level of government — including public school functions — or activities initiated by private citizens and carried out on public property? This makes a huge difference.

Current U.S. statutory and case law protects the rights of individual citizens to do religious stuff on public property, such as hold prayer meetings in a public park. Local ordinances may require you to get a permit, but local officials cannot deny your group a permit just because it is religious, as long as it is allowing non-religious groups permits to use the park.

The same thing is true of public school property. Students may organize their own prayer groups and pray together on public school property before and after school and during recess. They may also organize Bible study clubs and use school facilities after school for their meetings, if the school is allowing other kinds of clubs, such as the Girl Scouts, to meet there. This is a matter of law, enacted by Congress in the Equal Access Law of 1984, which was upheld by the Supreme Court in Westside Community Schools v. Mergens (1990).

So it’s utter hyperbole to say that religion is being totally banned from the “public square.” What’s prohibited, mostly, is religious expression that is initiated or sponsored by government itself.

The reason parents — and they weren’t just atheist parents — challenged school prayers is that some schools were forcing children to say prayers that violated their religious beliefs. For example, one of the landmark SCOTUS cases that prohibited school prayer, Engel v. Vitale (1962), was brought by Jewish families whose children were being coerced into saying prayers to Jesus in public school. There were a number of other cases back then in which children were being punished in subtle ways — being forced to hide in the cloakroom or sit in the library doing long division — if they refused to take part in religious activities in school.

The more recent Texas football case, Santa Fe Independent School Dist. v. Doe (2000), was initiated by Catholic and Mormon families who not only objected to the content of the prayers being said over the loudspeakers before football games, they also testified that many teachers had treated their children with hostility because they hadn’t been “born again” and in some cases had ridiculed them in front of other students because of their religion. School officials seriously needed to be reminded they weren’t living in the United States of Fundamentalist Jesus.

However, by law, people who really want to pray to Fundamentalist Jesus before high school football games can still do so if they organize their own prayer circles before the game, and they can do this on school property. It just can’t be part of the official program that everyone has to sit through.

One of my favorite “enlightenment” examples on this issue was an article in World Net Daily by a guy who couldn’t understand the big deal about prayers at football games until his company temporarily transferred him to Hawaii. He was invited to a high school football game and asked to stand up for the pregame prayer, which he did. Then he realized to his horror that he was standing up for a Buddhist prayer.

We were frozen in shock and incredulity! What to do? To continue to stand and observe this prayer would represent a betrayal of our own faith and imply the honoring of a pagan deity that was anathema to our beliefs. To sit would be an act of extreme rudeness and disrespect in the eyes of our Japanese hosts and neighbors, who value above all other things deference and respect in their social interactions. I am sorry to say that in the confusion of the moment we chose the easier path and elected to continue to stand in silence so as not to create a scene or ill will among those who were seated nearby.

Wow, that was big of him.

Anyway, over the next few days the writer found out that, because this ethnic Japanese community was predominantly Buddhist and Shinto, the pre-game prayers were also either Buddhist or Shinto. He stayed away from Hawaiian high school football games because he couldn’t handle the prayers. He concluded,

The point is this. I am a professional, educated and responsible man who is strong in his faith and is quite comfortable debating the social and political issues of the day. Yet when placed in a setting where the majority culture proved hostile to my faith and beliefs, I became paralyzed with indecision and could not act decisively to defend and proclaim my own beliefs. I felt instantly ostracized and viewed myself as a foreigner in my own land.

Yes, and it’s apparently incomprehensible for a lot of people of the majority faith, Christianity, to imagine what it feels like to be in the minority until it happens to them. I wish I could send the whole Bible Belt to Buddhist/Shinto public observances so they can appreciate what it feels like.

The point here is that courts have interpreted the free exercise of religion to be a basic right of citizenship enshrined in the First Amendment but protected by the 14th Amendment, the first paragraph of which is —

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Prayers and other religious observances that are initiated and conducted by “officials” of government, whether school teachers or senators, and are part of the official program of some kind of government function, are an infringement of the free exercise of religion of any citizen who is not of the faith represented in the prayer. And there is no such thing as a “nonsectarian prayer,” especially if there are any atheists or nontheists (like me) in the audience.

Earlier this year in Town of Greece v. Galloway (2014) SCOTUS ruled to allow sectarian prayer before government meetings. Such prayers had never been prohibited as long as they didn’t amount of obvious proselytization, although there was some grumbling Justice Scalia’s written opinion opened that door. Conservative Christian groups celebrated their “freedom to pray,” as if they’d actually been prohibited from praying before. Now some groups are fighting back by insisting that the prayers include pagan or other minority prayers, and I don’t see how even Justice Scalia — famous for his creative interpretations of the Constitution — could come up with an argument that such prayers must only be Christian. Although I wouldn’t put it past him to try.

I haven’t personally said the Pledge of Allegiance for decades. I originally stopped saying it because I was angry about the War in Vietnam, but then I realized the “under God” part was wrong, and citizens should be required to say that. It’s an infringement on freedom of religion. I’m not on any big crusade to outlaw the thing, but I do encourage people who are uncomfortable with it to just not say it. Maybe someday if enough people are just not saying it, the thing will be re-thought.

The point is that something that may not seem like a big deal to you might be a big deal to the guy standing next to you, and he has rights, too. Your “nitpicky extreme” might feel like a serious infringement to somebody else.

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Bernie Says It

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Obama Administration

Sen. Sanders on CNN:

Asked about military action against ISIS, Sen. Sanders said,

 

It’s a problem for the international community, and you asked me a moment ago why aren’t other countries more deeply involved? I will tell you why. Because they believe that the American taxpayers are going to do it, and American soldiers are ultimately going to do it. And as long as that signal is out there, that’s what’s going to happen. I want the Saudi Arabian government to be actively involved. I want their troops to be on the ground. I don’t want them to believe that we’re going to do it for them. So yes, I think we have to play a very strong and supportive role with the UK, with France, with Canada, with other countries. It can not and should not be the United States alone.

….

It is very easy to criticize the president, but this is an enormously complicated issue. We are here today because of the disastrous blunder of the Bush/Cheney era that got us into the war in Iraq in the first place. Which then developed the can of worms that we are trying to deal with right now.

Do watch the videol

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War on Women Update

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abortion, Women's Issues

Dave Weigel has moved from Slate to Bloomberg News, at at Bloomberg he tells us that the GOP has a bigger and bigger problem with women voters.

The most interesting part, to me, is that in many races around the country Republicans are having to backstep and fudge and are genuinely on the defensive about their stands on “women’s issues,” including abortion. I can remember not many years ago it was conventional wisdom that socially liberal candidates should probably not discuss abortion unless directly asked about it, and then frame all responses in “safe, legal and rare” language.

But now the tables are turned, at least in some parts of the country, and now it’s Republican candidates who have to be careful to not come across as too extremely anti-choice. It seems the overreach of many Republican state legislators, as well as Republicans in Washington, to deny women not just abortion but even reasonable access to birth control has finally triggered the realization that Republicans are dangerous to women.

Again, looking back, I remember the “wink” campaign of George W. Bush in 2000. Dubya was explicitly anti-choice, but he had plenty of women surrogates winking at voters and saying, in effect, he doesn’t mean it. He has to say that to get elected. His mother is pro-choice; his wife is pro-choice. Don’t worry about it. But this truth is that Dubya never saw a women’s rights-restricting bill he wasn’t eager to sign. Fool me once, etc.

In Michigan, for example, Republican Senate candidate Terri Lynn Land ran what was supposed to be a “killer” ad pooh-poohing (with silence) the very idea that she was part of the war on women. Voters weren’t fooled; she’s now trailing her Democratic opponent among women voters by 17 points. “Land’s defense of her agenda that cuts access to mammograms, restricts access to contraception, and opposes equal pay for women is summed up in that now infamous 14 seconds of silence,” a Democratic spokesperson said.

I don’t think that Republicans entirely grasp that female genitalia do not a pro-women candidate make. It’s the issues, stupid.

Amanda Marcotte wrote recently that Republicans around the country are running away from “culture war” issues, notably same-sex marriage and access to birth control, and this is causing a rift between the GOP and the religious Right. Marcotte adds,

It’s almost possible to feel a small twinge of pity for the true believers on the religious right. For decades now, the Republican party has depended on them to endorse right wing ideology as a religious belief and to organize voters to get Republicans elected. But now the religious right is finding they only love you if they need you. Of course, religious conservatives shouldn’t fret too much. Just because Republican politicians may not want to engage in the culture war now doesn’t mean they won’t return to pushing the religious right’s agenda against gays and women once safely ensconced in office.

That’s probably true, although if (please) women’s votes cost the GOP the Senate in November, the next wink campaign may be aimed at religious conservatives.

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The Fantasies of Sam Harris

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Middle East, Religion

I find Sam Harris slightly less annoying than, say, Richard Dawkins, but that’s not saying much. Much like Dawkins, Sam Harris is intelligent and articulate and a seething mass of self-deception. He’s a smart guy soaking in his own bullshit, basically.

If you know me at all you know I don’t give a hoo-haw whether someone believes in God or not, as long as they aren’t being missionaries about it, either way. I’m fine with atheists. I call myself that sometimes, although I prefer the label non-theist if I have to be labeled. What bugs me aren’t so much atheists but anti-theists, people with a knee-jerk disdain for all religion. Anti-theists are inevitably ignorant of religion — including non-theistic ones — and assume it all to be just varying degrees of fundamentalism.

Harris also represents another crew I can do without, the true believers of scientism. Scientism — the current and more dogmatic form of what is also called positivism —  is not science; it’s a blind faith that the scientific method is the measure of all truth, and whatever is not subject to falsification by the scientific method is just superstitious nonsense. Scientism is itself unscientific, since its premise is not subject to testing by the scientific method, but the scientismists get very angry when you point that out to them.

You may have heard about the televised flame over Islam among Bill Maher, Sam Harris and Ben Affleck on Maher’s show last week. Affleck isn’t the guy I would have chosen to stand up to Harris, and I confess I haven’t taken the time to watch it. (I defer to Juan Cole’s analysis of the event.) Nicolas Kristof was on the show, too, and apparently could get few words in edgewise. But the fallout has been interesting, possibly more so than the flame itself.  People clearly are judging the “winner” based on their prior opinions of Islam. And now Harris writes on his blog that Affleck and Kristof were mean to him. “Affleck and Nicholas Kristof then promptly demonstrated my thesis by mistaking everything Maher and I said about Islam for bigotry toward Muslims,” Harris writes.

But Harris’s bigotry to Muslims, and toward all religion generally, has been commented on for years; he really ought to be used to it by now. For the ultimate analysis of Harris’s twisted worldview, see this 2011 article by Jackson Lears, “Same Old New Atheism: On Sam Harris.”

There is copious data in the field of psychology suggesting that people are not nearly as rational as we think we are, and the myth-making parts of our brains are still churning out myths. Generally without being conscious of it we’re all creating a narrative, a personal myth, that explains us to ourselves. As we go through life we make up a story about ourselves and our role in the world, and who we think we are, and we process our experiences by fitting them into the narrative. I wrote in the book,

In his book The Unpersuadables, which really is the best thing I’ve read on this topic, Will Storr suggests that our thinking skills haven’t evolved beyond the age of myth as much as we think. Our brains are wired to look for connections and meaning, and so we see connections and meaning whether they are there or not. Our experiences are framed by our personal, mythical (and usually self-flattering) narratives, not data. We feel emotions and impulses, generated in the subconscious, that we cannot explain, so we make up stories to explain them. We create our stories from our biases, however, not from objective fact, and that’s how we interpret the world. And we all do this, religious or not.

Indeed, it may be that the most foolish belief of all is the belief that any of us are rational. The only difference between a sensible person and a kook may be that the sensible person holds irrational beliefs that conform to a socially acceptable norm, while the kook is more creative.

Further, the social psychologists tell us our opinions on just about everything are being generated by our subconscious, and without realizing it we then craft a story to tell ourselves why we believe as we do. We’re all being jerked around by biases unless we come to know ourselves very, very well and recognize the emotional cues we’re getting from our ids, and make a conscious choice to ignore them. And that would be one person in a million.

And a bit later in the book, I wrote,

What’s happening with scientism believers (scientismists?), seems to me, is that they very much want to believe they are as entirely rational as computers and utterly unlike those irrational religion-believing people they so dislike. So the myth-making parts of their brains have developed a strong cognitive bias to “confirm” their belief in absolute rationality and of themselves as relentlessly rational. They’re living in a myth that they’re not living in a myth.

I say a person cannot be genuinely rational until he recognizes and acknowledges his own irrationality. Otherwise, he’s just kidding himself.

IMO this is precisely what’s going on with Harris. He is living in a myth that he is entirely rational, and in his mind everything he thinks must be rational because he’s the one thinking it. If you disagree with him, you are being emotional and irrational.

Harris’s and Dawkins’s groupies are just as bad. Find any online article critical of one of the Prophets of New Atheism and you get hundreds of comments sputtering in outrage that anyone dare question the wisdom of The Prophets. It doesn’t matter how clearly the article writer has expressed himself and supported his views; whatever he writes will be dismissed as ad hominem and even as bigoted toward atheism. This is true even if the author acknowledges that he is an atheist himself. (This review of the first volume of Dawkins’s autobiography is a good example. If you read it, then see “John Gray’s scurrilous attack on Richard Dawkins” for the knee-jerk defense of a true believer against anything short of fawning deference toward the Great Man.)

In the book I make mention of Harris’s ideas on science-based morality, which he described in his book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Moral Values and elsewhere, and which I dismantled in some detail. Harris really does see the ideal human as absolutely rational and as logical as a computer, which is nonsense, and as a neuroscientist he ought to know better. In fact, we’re all an oozy mess of biases and various psychological pathologies trying to cope with it all, and our brief moments of pure rational thought are like lightning flashes in the sky of our otherwise muddled understanding. That may sound pessimistic, but it’s the truth, and I honestly don’t believe anyone can be rational at all until he or she owns up to that and makes allowance for it.

Regarding Islam, Harris is stuck in the belief that the ghastly violence and extremism roiling the near and middle east are entirely coming from Islam, which is irrational on its face considering that there really are devout Muslims who are gentle and nonviolent human beings and not violent psycho-pathological killers. New Atheists assume all religion exists on a sliding crazy scale, and the more “devout” one is the more extreme, crazy, and potentially dangerous one is, but it actually doesn’t work that way. As I observed in the book,

Violent religious factions around the globe appear to share some characteristics, and one of these is a tendency to disregard doctrines that counsel putting away hatred and avoiding violence. In fact, the more radical and violent the group, the less likely the fanatics are to accept their religion’s doctrines in any holistic way. Instead, they tend to make a fetish out of some doctrines, usually those involving enforcement of morality and respecting the religion’s deities and symbols, while ignoring deeper spiritual doctrines about humility and compassion. We can see this clearly in radical Islam, but the same tendencies are apparent in hyper-conservative Christianity and Judaism as well as in the militant Buddhist monks.

As I document at some length in the chapter on religious violence, “religious violence” never happens in a vacuum. If you look deeply and objectively at the episodes of religious violence around the world today and back through history, they are never just about religion. Violence happens during a confluence of particular cultural, social, political, historical, and sometimes religious factors, usually combining some kind of “holy cause” — which is not necessarily a religious one — with a fanatical grievance, an unshakable belief that one has been wronged somehow and is entitled to get back at somebody for it, a belief that can manifest in many forms. Sometimes religion is a primary motivator, but more often, when religion is a factor at all, it’s used to package the rage and give atrocity a fig leaf of respectability.

Among New Atheism’s pet dogmas is the belief that religion is the cause of nearly all wars. I understand there is a massive tome called the Encyclopedia of Wars that analyzes wars, mentioned recently in a Timothy Egan column. “Of 1,723 armed conflicts documented in the three-volume ‘Encyclopedia of Wars,’” he says, “only 123, or less than 7 percent, involved a religious cause.” I would have guessed a bit higher than that, frankly, but I will assume that’s accurate.

New Atheists get around apparently non-religious reasons for war by equating all ideological fanaticism as “religious,” even when the fanaticism has a stated anti-religious basis, as in Communism.  In the late Christopher Hitchens’s largely ridiculous book God Is Not Great, Hitch supported his argument that religion is the root of all evil essentially by classifying things he disapproved of as religious and those he approved of as not religious. Thus, Mao Zedong was religious, but Martin Luther King wasn’t. And Hitch believed himself to be entirely rational.

Islam actually is a hugely diverse tradition in which scripture and teachings are interpreted and practiced many different ways, which means anyone who ever speaks of Islam as if it were one monolithic thing should automatically be dismissed as ignorant. And if you can’t see the many historical, cultural, social and political factors fueling violence in the Muslim world, you are blind. There’s just no getting around that; you’ve got to be a blinkered idiot to assume Islam alone is the cause of the current madness. And since Sam Harris sees the world that way, I have to assume there’s something seriously wrong with him, and applied rational thinking isn’t it.

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How Saul Alinsky Became the Bogeyman

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American History, Obama Administration, Wingnuts Being Wingnuts

The rightie noise machine is pushing a story about a “close relationship” between the dreaded Hillary Clinton and the dreaded Saul Alinsky. Apparently some ancient correspondence between them has been published, proof of the evilness of the Evil Clinton Agenda.

Here’s typical commentary from a rightie blogger:

Alinsky’s chilling rules outlined in Rules for Radicals can be found here. Alinsky’s theories espouse Marxist and socialist ideologies, and this is the man on whom Hillary Clinton wrote her Wellesley College thesis. While writing her thesis at Wellesley on Alinsky’s theory of community organizing, Clinton met with Alinsky to have what she would later refer to as “biennial conversations.”

In her thesis, Hillary attempted to portray Alinsky as a mainstream American icon, writing, “His are the words used in our schools and churches, by our parents and their friends, by our peers. The difference is that Alinsky really believes in them.”

The real Alinsky was neither a Marxist nor a socialist, of course. This is from that radical e-rag, the Christian Science Monitor:

While he has become associated with radical left-wing politics in current political thought, it’s an association that’s largely misplaced, says Mark Santow, associate professor of history at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth and the author of a forthcoming book on Alinsky.

Professor Santow says Alinsky’s philosophy did not have a political persuasion. Rather, he was “relentlessly non-ideological.” In fact, Santow says parts of Alinsky’s thinking could be found in elements of today’s Democrat and Republican Parties.

“He basically believed that American society was increasingly dominated by large institutions, governments, corporations,” he says. “He thought that ordinary Americans had lost citizenship.”

He adds: “He bears some resemblance to libertarians like William Buckley … but he also bears resemblance to green, new left politics on the other side as well.”

This article also points out that Clinton’s senior thesis was critical of Alinsky in several respects.

Dylan Matthews has a longer article at Vox examining the relationship between Alinsky and Clinton in more detail, and in the context of the times, and of course what is revealed is neither communist nor Marxist but more along the lines of traditional American leftie-progressive populism.

Matthews’s article is titled Who is Saul Alinsky, and why does the right hate him so much? He answers the first question pretty well — ironically noting that something like Alinsky’s methodology was used to organize the Tea Party — but I don’t think he answers the second one.

I doubt very much of your average rightie has more than a vague idea who Saul Alinsky actually was, what he actually proposed, what he actually did. I think the name has come to represent something dark and nasty from deep beneath the subconscious of the rightie hive mind that has little to do with the real Saul Alinsky. I sincerely believe the straw-man Alinsky is the Right’s Emmanuel Goldstein, the possibly fabricated enemy of the state from Orwell’s 1984.

And let me also say that if Alinsky actually had been named William Thompson or John White we wouldn’t be hearing about him now. The name itself, IMO, stirs up nameless fears of a foreign “other” in our midst. For all their celebrated support of the state of Israel, the U.S. right-wing base is an overwhelmingly Christian crew representing a portion of our population long associated with antisemitism. As much as they may support Israel, Jewishness may be something else to them.

Alinsky’s most famous work is a book titled Rules for Radicals. Even though they are radicals themselves, the word radical makes righties nervous. They associate it with the Left, I believe; “right-wing radicalism” is an oxymoron to them. The word radicalism seems to stir up fears of chaos and civil disorder, which they don’t like unless they are causing it. Then it’s okay.

Saul Alinsky, then, makes a first-rate right-wing bogeyman who sends chills up the spines of the faithful even if they couldn’t tell you who he actually was, beyond some guy who did community organizing.

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Compassion vs. Reince Priebus

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abortion, Republican Party

There was a brief flurry of mild amusement on some leftie blogs yesterday, as Chuck Todd appeared briefly to make a point. On Meet the Press he asked GOP frontman Reince Priebus about why Republicans oppose regulations on business except when the business is an abortion clinic.

And Priebus actually said, “The fact of the matter is we believe that any woman that’s faced with unplanned pregnancy deserves compassion, respect, counseling.” Seriously, he said that. It’s on the video.

Todd pressed (!) the point, asking how it could be compassionate to expect women “drive for 2 or 300 miles,” and Priebus changed the subject to taxpayer funding of abortion, which is one of the current phony issues/shiny sparkly things being dangled in front of the base to keep it focused. At this point, Todd reverted to form and failed to point out that taxpayer dollars are not, in fact, being used to fund abortions. As I said, it was a brief flurry.

The larger point is that Republicans have a weird view of “compassion” that matches their weird view of women. And their weird view of human reproduction, for that matter.

Republican Family Life

There’s a bunch of new data showing that a dramatic reduction in unwanted pregnancy — and, thereby, abortion — can be achieved by providing teenage girls and women with free counseling  and the contraception of their choice, also free. This cuts teen abortion rates by 75 percent.

As near as I can tell claims that taxes are funding abortions are based on two things: One, the exchange subsidies will pay for policies that include abortion coverage. To which I say, Oh, please. … The other is that tax money goes to Planned Parenthood, an organization that no doubt prevents more abortions than all the so-called “right to life” culties put together. Seriously, as the Fetus People make family planning services more out of reach for low income women, they should pick up their “baby killer” signs and start picketing each other.

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